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Conference to explore New Zealand’s classical influences


26 August 2014

Conference to explore New Zealand’s classical influences

The first conference to explore New Zealand’s relationship with its Greco-Roman heritage will be hosted by Victoria University of Wellington’s Classics programme next month.

Athens to Aotearoa: Greece and Rome in New Zealand Literature and Society will feature writers and artists as speakers, including keynote speaker Professor Witi Ihimaera, as well as a number of highly regarded classical academics from New Zealand and abroad.

“We have been lucky enough to have attracted several very good creative New Zealanders who are willing to talk about their ideas and how they’ve engaged with texts, themes, and ideas from antiquity,” says conference organiser, Professor Jeff Tatum.

“In New Zealand contemporary prose and poetry in particular, the classical influence is quite prevalent.”

Co-organiser, Dr Simon Perris, says that a call for creative contributors brought some interesting people out of the woodwork.

“We received emails from people with Alexander the Great novels languishing in their drawer, people who had written comic graphic novels, and a number of writers of traditional historical fiction. New Zealand’s classical influence ranges from TV series like Xena and Hercules right through to high end literary novels.”

As well as Professor Ihimaera discussing the place of classical mythology in his work, other speakers include artist Marian McGuire, best-known for lithographs and etchings that combine imagery from Greek vase painting with New Zealand colonial history; Dr Arlene Holmes-Henderson, an expert in classical and heritage language education who will talk about how classical education is making a comeback in United Kingdom and New Zealand schools; and Professor John Davidson, Emeritus Professor of Classics at Victoria University of Wellington, who will discuss classical themes in the poetry of R.A.K. Mason, one of New Zealand’s foremost twentieth-century poets.

“Our conference will be a unique event in New Zealand’s intellectual and cultural history,” says Professor Tatum.

Below are four speakers from the conference who are available for interviews:

Professor Witi Ihimaera

Witi Ihimaera is a novelist, short story writer, anthologist and librettist, who has the distinction of being the first Māori writer to publish both a book of short stories and a novel. Perhaps his best known work, Whale Rider, was made into an internationally successful feature film in 2002.

Witi Ihimaera will focus on the place of classical mythology in his work and the way it relates to Māori mythology.

Marian Maguire
Marian Maguire is a New Zealand artist best-known for lithographs and etchings that combine imagery from Greek vase painting with New Zealand colonial history. Her work graces the cover of three publications by or about ‘Athens to Aotearoa’ speakers: Striding Both Worlds: Witi Ihimaera and New Zealand’s Literary Traditions by Melissa Kennedy, The Snake-Haired Muse: James K. Baxter and Classical Myth by Geoffrey Miles, John Davidson and Paul Millar, and Ithaca Island Bay Leaves by Vana Manasiadis.

Marian Maguire will talk about her famous series of lithographs incorporating classical imagery, settler imagery and Māori imagery.

Arlene Holmes-Henderson
Dr Arlene Holmes-Henderson holds degrees from Oxford, Harvard, Cambridge, and Glasgow. An expert in classical and heritage language education, Dr. Holmes-Henderson is currently a post-doctoral researcher with the Faculty of Classics at the University of Oxford, working with the ‘Classics in Communities’ project.

Dr Holmes-Henderson will present the results of her research into classical education in the United Kingdom, Australia, and New Zealand, identifying areas where the New Zealand education system is a world-leader in this subject and also areas where we could learn from other systems.

Professor John Davidson
Professor John Davidson is Emeritus Professor of Classics at Victoria University of Wellington where he was a long-serving member of the department. In 2014 he was made a Member of the New Zealand Order of Merit for services to education and the arts. Professor Davidson’s research focuses on Greek tragedy and classical influences on modern poetry, drama, and opera; his publications include The Snake-Haired Muse: James K. Baxter and Classical Mythology (2011), co-authored with Geoffrey Miles and Paul Millar.

Professor Davidson will discuss the New Zealand poet R.A.K. Mason (1905-1971) and the way in which his considerable knowledge of Latin literature, especially the poets Horace and Catullus, is reflected in his own poetry, which was written more than 2000 years later in an entirely different context.

Conference details
What: Athens to Aotearoa: Greece and Rome in New Zealand Literature and Society
When: 4-6 September 2014
Where: Old Government Building, Lambton Quay
To register: Visit

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